“Going out to do a qualifying run on one of the ovals is, to me, one of the most special sensations out there,” says Indy Lights driver Pippa Mann. “When a car’s absolutely right on an oval it’s mega.”
A frustrating season spent struggling with the under-performing Panther Racing team gave the 26-year-old Ipswich racer precious few opportunities to enjoy the feeling, and the year ended with the whole two-car operation being shut down.
But Mann earned enough prize money to base herself in Indianapolis for another season and she has already secured herself a test with one of the top Indy Lights outfits, Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
It’s a long way from guaranteeing her a drive for next year – Stefan Wilson is also testing – but she has already impressed the veteran team boss with her approach to racing.
Schmidt, who has previously fielded cars for Leilani Münter and Ana Beatriz, said: “I have had the opportunity recently to speak with Pippa at length about her goals and ambitions in motor sports and was extremely impressed with her drive, determination, and focus to be successful.
“She has a very disciplined and technical approach, and we are very much looking forward to testing with her.”
Mann is enthusiastic about the opportunity to widen her experience: “The only Firestone Indy Lights car I have driven up until now has been the #16 Panther Racing car, so it will be extremely interesting for me to test with another team.
“The chance to do so with an outfit as highly-regarded as Sam Schmidt Motorsports is a great opportunity for me, and I’m really looking forward to getting onto the track.
“Although we’re still undecided on plans for next year, this gives me a positive feeling about what we’re trying to achieve.”
Smooth driving style
The World Series by Renault veteran upped sticks and moved to Indianapolis at the start of this season to try her luck in the main feeder series for America’s biggest open-wheel series, the IndyCar Racing League.
Once there, she revealed a smooth driving style perfectly suited to the fast-paced oval speedways that make up half the season schedule, where drivers duel inches apart at 180mph for lap after relentless lap.
But she also uncorked a streak of equally relentless bad luck that saw her spinning out of races backwards, sideways or – in one particularly frightening incident – upside-down, usually through no fault of her own.
“We had some hideous luck,” she recalls, talking to Brits on Pole last week from her new apartment in Indianapolis.
“I was running in 10th place in my first-ever oval race with eight laps to go when the guy in front of me span, I was running in eighth place in Indianapolis in my second-ever oval race when the guy in front of me span, and then I came ninth in Milwaukee but that would have been three top 10s in my first three oval races.
“The results say that I only had three all year but that would have been three out of three to get the ball rolling. Had it happened like that we’d have gone to somewhere like Kentucky or Chicagoland with a lot more confidence, and when you go somewhere with confidence the result comes a lot more easily. It’s a vicious circle.”
She ended the year with a season-high eighth place at Homestead-Miami – but even that result was accompanied by a last-lap dose of wheel-bashing that cost her seventh by inches and almost knocked her out of the race.
Pretty cheesed off
“I’m just glad the year didn’t end in a wreck, especially after the kind of year I’ve had, that would have been an awful way for the year to end,” she said. “Thankfully we just about got away with it – although I was pretty cheesed off to have found out I actually lost that place by nought-point-nought-nought-whatever-it-was seconds because of contact someone else had made into me.”
Mann expects better things to come if she makes it back into the series in 2010 because of the experience she gained this season, which will save her from having to learn everything from scratch on arrival at each circuit.
She said: “I’m turning up at these tracks I’ve never seen before and I have 45 minutes testing then I’m into qualifying. So that’s 20 laps somewhere I’ve never seen before to a) try and tune my car in and work out whether we’ve got the set-up right this time or whether we’ve missed a bit and try and fix it, and b) try and learn the circuit. It’s a tall order sometimes.
“For someone like me, that’s actually very difficult because one of my greatest strengths is that if you give me a little bit of time with something and give me the opportunity to work a bit with something I get better and better.”
It’s not a luxury often offered to drivers, but Mann believes it produces better results for teams in the end: “You’re so often not allowed to do that – people will take the driver who gets in the car, shuts his eyes and goes flat out straight away and probably crashes 10 times over the driver who gets in, takes a little bit longer to really build into it but doesn’t find themselves in the fence quite so often.
“That to me is very irritating because I believe that’s one of my stronger qualities, and I like to have a bit of time with things, I like to be allowed to work with things. I feel I’m going to be much stronger next year already knowing the circuits, because for me trying to learn a brand-new circuit that quickly is tough.
“Going back knowing where I’m going is a big plus for me, I know the Indy Lights car a little bit so that’s a big help for me, I know what I need from my oval car now – that’s a big help for me. I just believe I’m going to come back so much stronger next year.”
A really, really great team
This year, despite pre-season testing at Homestead-Miami in which Mann was the fastest driver on both days, Panther Racing’s plans for her and colleague Martin Plowman never quite came together.
Mann said: “Panther is a fantastic team, they’re a really, really great team, however they traditionally come from the oval racing aspect of things and so, when I joined, part of the brief was that they’re going to give me the best oval car they possibly can and they’re really going to teach me to do this oval thing.
“And part of the brief was they’d had a really tough year on the road courses last year, so they wanted us to help them take their road car and make it a little bit better. They didn’t think it was that bad, but they’d had a tough time so they wanted road racers to come in and help develop the car.”
But it didn’t work out.
“My engineer this year has been fantastic, he’s extremely bright, but he’s very very inexperienced – so you’ve got me with no experience and him with very little experience and between the two of us unfortunately we just haven’t got it right all the time,” she said.
While she and Plowman were struggling in Indy Lights, Panther was also falling back in the parent IndyCar series where ex-champion Dan Wheldon started strongly but faded as the season progressed.
Although Mann wasn’t close enough to the IndyCar operation to know exactly what was going wrong, she feels the team suffered as the former Champ Car squads that merged into the IRL in 2008 began to master oval racing to go with their existing road course expertise: “All of a sudden Panther aren’t the third-biggest team any more – all of a sudden it gets a lot harder to run up front.” she said.
“Then, of course, if one team’s struggling a little bit, sure it affects the other team, although you try not to let it affect it.”
And all that without the sort of luck that meant Mann was often beaten before a race had barely started.
At Indianapolis, where she raced as part of the build-up to the Indy 500, the team hit on the perfect set-up – but Mann lasted barely half a dozen laps before Plowman lost control of his car and took her out with him.
She said: “Being in Indianapolis in the Month of May is something else – really, really, really fantastic. There’s pretty much nothing like it. The build-up to the Firestone Freedom 100 was one of the biggest build-ups to a race I’ve done.
“Unfortunately the race itself ended a bit prematurely – it was one of those races where it was nothing to do with me. The car in front of me spun and at 200 miles an hour you just can’t miss them when they spin.
“And actually I just about managed to miss the guy who spun but, in doing so, I had to go up really high into the marbles and the car wouldn’t turn any more so my right side hit the wall and got all bent in.
“That was really disappointing because my car in that race was awesome and I was just running round saving tyres and looking forward to later on in the race.”
But if Indianapolis ended in disappointment, the Miller Lite 100 at the Iowa Speedway nearly ended in something altogether worse.
Already down on laps after an earlier spin that forced her into the pits, Mann was caught by the leaders with a couple of circuits remaining. Moving up to let them through, she was tagged by James Davison’s car, sent into the wall and flipped upside-down.
She described the incident and the lead-in to it: “In qualifying, on brand new tyres, was the first and the only time I managed to run the track flat out. As a result I qualified quite a bit higher up than I possibly should have done.
“When we got into the race we discovered that I didn’t quite have the car that I needed – not only could I not run the track flat out, I was also having to have quite big lifts off the throttle and that meant I started getting shuffled slowly backwards through the order.”
Unsuccessful set-up adjustments made during her pitstop made her even less competitive and she was caught by the leaders: “I looked in my mirrors and I could see there was a train of lead-lap cars coming up at me so I made what I now know from my experience in oval racing was the wrong decision.
“Coming from England, the thing to do from back home is, when you get lapped, you get the hell out of the way. What I should have done was get down to the inside of the track and hug the white line and let all the lead lap cars go the longer, more difficult, way round.
“What I actually did, coming from Europe, is I went up to the second lane and left the bottom open for all the lead lap cars so they could come through without me affecting their race at all.
“Unfortunately when the train was underneath me one of the guys got a bit too close to the car in front of him. That meant his car lost grip and came up into the second lane and, obviously, my car was there. We got sideways, touched wheels, and up I went. That was kind of that really.”
Except it wasn’t.
While she ran upside-down and backwards she was covered by a trail of sparks caused by the car grinding against the track, convincing her that a fire was imminent. As soon as the car stopped she began to unbuckle her safety belts to get out – just as Ana Beatriz, 20 seconds away from victory and paying insufficient attention to the caution flag telling her to slow down, flashed by the stricken car.
Mann said she hadn’t been aware of how close she came to being hit until she saw replays later, and accepts that she should not have tried to get out of the car so quickly.
“When you put a race car upside-down – I’ve never been in one of these cars upside-down before, but I now know this – it grinds the roll-hoop down and you can smell it burning off. So I’m upside-down, I’m in a race car, and I can smell burning. What happens afterwards – OK, I should have stayed in the car longer, but that’s not really controlled by me.
“The lesson I learned from Iowa is that, if you’re off the pace, stick to the bottom line and make them go round you. They’ll hate you, they’ll all hate you – but make them do that.”
Fair play and sportsmanship
It’s typical of Mann that her biggest accident should come as she attempted to do the right thing by her rival drivers. Fair play and sportsmanship are subjects that – along with fitness training and the technicalities of setting a car up – exercise her greatly.
“I’m the kind of racing driver that believes there’s fair play and there’s unfair play,” she said. “I don’t come from the ‘win at all costs’ school of driving and I have very little respect for people who do.
“Most of the drivers out here have been really, really good. Most of them have been fantastic. There are many drivers out here who race extremely fairly but there’s always the odd one that drives you bananas.
“It’s a fault of mine – I can take rough play and I can take tough play but as soon as something steps over the line into unfair play it does drive me bananas.
“But some of the drivers I’ve raced against who are experienced on ovals have been some of the best people to be around all year – they’re the people you want to run around with. In general, they don’t do the stupid stuff, and if they do make a mistake they’ll come talk you afterwards.”
A case in point was the Iowa incident where Davison, although blameless, came to apologise afterwards and check she was unhurt: “The guy came to me and said ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, are you OK?’ I looked at him, and the poor bugger meant it. I said to him ‘It could happen to anyone, I really appreciate you coming to find me, I’m absolutely fine, please stop worrying about it, it’ll be fine, move on’.”
And when, in Chicagoland, she made a misjudgement and took Brandon Wagner out of the race she was careful to admit her error to him.
She said: “I made a mistake in the race. I was having one of my best oval races of the year, I was three-wide and the car on the outside – I’ve since seen the video and he barely moved at all in real life, unfortunately at 185mph you see the car outside of you move, my instant reaction was to move myself, and my left rear tyre went into the right front wing of the car inside.
“Entirely my fault. I went and found the guy, I said ‘I’ve seen the video mate, I screwed up. I’m really sorry that happened to both of us in that race’. We shook hands and we moved on.”
It’s a necessary skill in Indianapolis, a city she describes as having a small-town feel with a tight-knit racing community, and where one year’s rival might become next year’s team-mate and training partner.
By choosing to base herself there now her time at Panther has ended, Mann has made a big commitment to remaining in that community. Her forthcoming test for Sam Schmidt gives hope that – with her technical knowledge and great determination, and perhaps a bit of the luck that evaded her this year – she will be part of it for the foreseeable future.
This is part one of our interview. Part two is Mann’s Iowa race, told in her own words. Part three will come soon and will cover topics as wide-ranging as fitness and training, women in racing, Twitter and Facebook, living in Indianapolis and her “baby”…